Breaking the Metagame

Feminist Spoilsports and Magic Circle Jerks

In the game of patriarchy, women are not the opposing team, they are the ball.

—Anita Sarkeesian, Twitter

The figure of the spoil-sport is most apparent in boys’ games. The little community does not enquire whether the spoil-sport is guilty of defection because he dares not enter into the game or because he is not allowed to. Rather it does not recognize “not being allowed” and calls it “not daring.”

—Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens

Standing in front of a packed audience at the Sydney Opera House on March 8, International Women’s Day 2015,[1] feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian (2015) admitted

What I couldn’t say is “fuck you.” To the thousands of men who turned their misogyny into a game, in which gendered slurs, death and rape threats are weapons used to take down the big bad villain (which in this case is me). My life is not a game. I’ve been harassed and threatened for going on three years with no end in sight. And all because I dared to question the obvious, self-evident sexism running rampant in the games industry.

The game Sarkeesian referenced didn’t come in a box. It wasn’t on sale at some electronics superstore or available for download on digital distribution services. Her harassment wasn’t protected by any intellectual property laws, end user license agreements, or digital rights management. Witch hunting, vote brigading, forum raiding, email spamming, Internet stalking, and threats of violence cannot be easily reduced to an advertising campaign, a packaged product, or packets of program data. Although the metagame never precisely aligns with or completely reduces to the mechanisms of digital media, all videogames are surrounded by and saturated with metagames. The social, political, and economic metagame that Sarkeesian referenced in Sydney determines much of how we play videogames, make videogames, and break videogames. Her words are a sobering reminder that not all metagames are good, and that many are downright toxic. As Sarkeesian (Kolhatkar 2014) testifies,

Harassment is the background radiation of my life. . . . It is a factor in every decision I make. Any time I tweet something, or make a post, I’m always thinking about it. When I post our videos, it’s a consideration. It affects where I go, and how I behave, and how I feel walking down the street every day.

From trash talking to verbal abuse in arcades; griefing to cyberbullying in online games; trolling to hate speech on web forums; and from pizza bombing to DDoSing,[2] doxxing,[3] swatting,[4] and stalking through locative, biometric, and other forms of identifying media, the metagames that both emerge from and envelop videogames contain varying amounts of toxicity, sometimes reaching pH levels so high that they become uninhabitable. If media, as Mark Hansen (2006a, 297) writes, constitute an “environment for life” and metagames function as an environment for games, what happens when the environment becomes unlivable? How did Sarkeesian find herself in such an acidic ecology, playing a toxic metagame that toyed with her life?

Two years earlier, on May 17, 2012, Sarkeesian (2012a) launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter requesting donations to finance a series of YouTube videos intended to “explore, analyze and deconstruct some of the most common tropes and stereotypes of female characters in games.” Following her original Tropes vs. Women (2011) videos, which analyzed conventional plot devices and recurring narrative representations of women in film and television such as “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” “Women in Refrigerators,” “The Smurfette Principle,” and “The Mystical Pregnancy” among others, Sarkeesian hoped to raise enough money to increase her production quality and get paid to shoot a second series called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games (2013–) aimed explicitly at the gendered and sexist storytelling conceits common to videogames such as the “Damsel in Distress,” “Ms. Male Character,” “The Fighting Fuck Toy,” and “The Sexy Sidekick,” to name a few.

The first episode of the series, released on March 17, 2013, defines the damsel in distress as a “plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character, usually providing a core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest” (Sarkeesian and McIntosh 2013). Whereas the video documents individual instances of the trope in over sixty games, Sarkeesian’s Bits of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games Tumblr image blog demonstrates the scale and ubiquity of damsels in distress by archiving an additional five hundred examples (including many of the videogames discussed in this book such as Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, StarCraft II, and Super Meat Boy). The apparent thoughtlessness and obvious frequency with which this trope is deployed highlight the default subject position through which many videogames are both produced and consumed, a standard way of playing that tolerates clichéd depictions of women and throwaway plotlines. Although Sarkeesian’s definitions, diagnosis, and documentation are not particularly controversial and her modest $6,000 funding goal was quietly met within the first twenty-four hours of the Kickstarter, the backlash was extreme.

Before the campaign ever finished and before the first video was released, on June 7, 2012, Sarkeesian (2012b) posted a grim update on her Kickstarter’s project page:

As some of you may be aware, this project has recently been subject to a coordinated online harassment effort waged by various online video game forums vowing to “take me down.” I always expect a certain level of harassment when discussing gender issues online. This time however, it’s a more organized and sustained effort than I’ve experienced before. The intimidation and harassment effort has included a torrent of misogyny and hate speech on my YouTube video, repeated vandalizing of the Wikipedia page about me, organized efforts to flag my YouTube videos as “terrorism,” as well as many threatening messages sent through Twitter, Facebook, Kickstarter, email and my own website. These messages and comments have included everything from the typical sandwich and kitchen “jokes” to threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape. All that plus an organized attempt to report this project to Kickstarter and get it banned or defunded.

Rather than lose funding, over the course of a week the number of supporters and total donations to Tropes vs. Women in Videogames increased tenfold in solidarity with Sarkeesian. The Kickstarter soared from 648 to 5,545 backers and from $17,171 to $158,922—figures that further galvanized and radicalized the campaign’s opponents. From bomb threats at the fourteenth annual Game Developers Choice Awards when Sarkeesian won the Ambassador Award in March 2014[5] to anonymous threats that included not only her home address but also her parents’ address in August the same year, the torrent of abuse only intensified as the project progressed over the years.

One of the most disturbing incidents occurred on October 14, 2014 when multiple faculty and staff of University of Utah, including Ann Austin, the director of the Center for Women and Gender Studies, received an email threatening that a “Montreal Massacre style attack” would take place if Sarkeesian was permitted to speak on campus. The email was signed “Marc Lépine” and describes the man who murdered fourteen women at École Polytechnique de Montréal on December 6, 1989 as a “hero to men everywhere for standing up to the toxic influence of feminism on Western masculinity” (Cimaron 2014). This citation of Lépine references not only one of the deadliest school shootings, but a mass murderer who specifically targeted women studying technology and enrolled in an engineering school.[6] The fact that Sarkeesian is Canadian and produced the Tropes vs. Women series of videos at York University in Toronto was apparently not lost on her harassers. A month before he was elected prime minister, even Justin Trudeau (2015) went so far as to identify “video game misogyny in popular culture” as an urgent social issue for Canada.[7] When threats of violence are made on social media and sent to game developers and critics, when social security numbers and banking information are released online, when universities must install metal detectors for public talks, and when world leaders are addressing the ongoing violence occurring in, on, around, and through videogames, the metagame doesn’t seem like a game anymore.

Just as the term metagame has been deployed to describe a large and diffuse category of play occurring alongside videogames, it has also been used as a label for Sarkeesian’s videos and public outspokenness as well as a shorthand for the ongoing harassment campaign surrounding her work. Some players doubt the relevance of criticism and claim the metagame is a distraction from the games themselves: “Neither side actually cares about gameplay. Every fuck involved in this conflict of interest only seems to care about the meta game and calling other people out” (McJobless 2014). Others are in denial about the toxicity of the community and incredulous that the metagame of harassment is worth reporting: “It seems like every month someone has to shout ‘OMG SOMEONE SENT ME A MEAN LETTER!’ [sic] . . . and then we have to go right back to playing the meta game” (Pring 2015). In an article for Ars Technica, Casey Johnston (2014) laments the similarity between Sarkeesian’s plight and the tropes she critiques: “It is, on a sad meta level, a real-life version of what Sarkeesian discusses in ‘Women as Background Decoration Part 2’: women being treated as less-than, harassed and harangued out of the conversation, in service to a different, ‘bigger’ problem. And every time it happens, it advances the goals of the most poisonous ‘gamers.’” Games researcher Megan Condis (2014) also noticed that the harassment itself is a gendered game: “The trolls see these campaigns as skirmishes in a grand meta-game, one that pervades every social circle in which gamers can be found. This game serves as an on-going test of worthiness for those who want to identify as ‘gamers’ and it, too, is profoundly gendered.”[8]

Apart from using the term metagame as a label for the broader debate about sexism in the videogame industry as well as Sarkeesian’s continued harassment, in the aftermath of the Kickstarter campaign original software was also produced featuring her likeness. One abhorrent example, Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian (2012) by Benjamin Daniel, features a slideshow in which Photoshopped portraits of Sarkeesian are progressively battered and bloodied with each mouse click. By contrast, Matt Thorson’s TowerFall: The Dark World (2013)[9] celebrates the critic’s contributions to the games industry by including an alternate design for the Blue Archer which sports Sarkeesian’s signature plaid shirt and hoop earrings (see Figure 6.1). Whereas these examples explicitly invoke the concept of metagaming—either through the direct use of the term or by producing games about Sarkeesian’s battle against sexism—there is also an often unstated, implicit metagame that governs the play of ideology in, on, around, and through videogames.

Figure 6.1. Although numerous attempts have been made to smear Sarkeesian’s image online, the alternate Blue Archer design in TowerFall (right) celebrates Tropes vs. Women in Videogames by referencing her signature hoop earrings and plaid shirt (left). Image courtesy of Matt Thorson, 2015 (right).

The implied, default, or standard metagame (first discussed in chapter 2) not only trains players to consume software in particular, often narrowly defined ways but also conflates how we play videogames with videogames as a black box and commodity fetish. Like the magic circle, these concepts reduce complex material, historical, economic, and political realities to idealized, serialized, exchangeable, and easily consumable products. As such, the rules of the standard metagame—often suggested by the design and dissemination of digital technologies—take the form of cultural conventions and unspoken assumptions about how to engage videogames. We play the standard metagame any time we preorder, purchase, and progress through a piece of software. It’s the metagame we play when we don’t think we are playing a metagame. Guided by technical conventions and conspicuous consumption, the standard metagame assumes that videogames should be executed on approved hardware platforms; displayed at certain specified frame rates in accordance with video standards; interfaced with through official and unmodified controllers; experienced by a normative binocular, bidextrous, bipedal body performing freely and without distraction; enjoyed for their own sake and without recourse to outside elements; and completed according to their intended design.[10]

Of course purchasing and playing a videogame is never this frictionless a process. There is always some kind of metagame at work in even the most common gaming activities. Not all metagames disrupt the operations or radically change the rules of the game. Yet the standard metagame continues to obfuscate all manner of practical play, conflating voluntary choice with involuntary mechanics. As a result, twiddling dual thumbsticks with two thumbs; viewing the display straight on from a certain distance; and even progressing in the game by scrolling left to right, accumulating points, unlocking content, and reaching the credits are voluntary choices but have become tacitly understood as the “normal” or “correct” way to play. These standard forms of play not only disavow their status as a metagame, but, in doing so, inhibit the production of more diverse forms of play. The standard metagame is an anti-metagaming metagame. The way in which this standard play conforms to and is rewarded by the ergonomic interfaces, authored design, advertising campaigns, and commodity form of videogames as a mass medium while disavowing their own existence is precisely how software encloses play as a cultural practice to become its ideological avatar.

When operating as the ideological avatar of play (formulated in chapter 1), videogames privatize and obfuscate the metagame by enclosing it within mechanical equipment, electronic appliances, software packages, and legal documents. Entangled with videogames as a mass medium and as a digital technology, play’s avatar incorporates the fantasies and fallacies of the twenty-first-century technical imaginary. As a result, the standard metagame reinforces the techno-utopian belief in the progressivist and teleological upgrade path, the escapist fantasy of sensory and cognitive immersion within virtual realities, the ideal of a magic circle that levels the playing field and guarantees fair competition, the postgender and postracial hope that in the game all players are equal and can be quantitatively compared, the authority of an implied author whose creative choices are autonomous from historical or political contexts, the libertarian dream that the market is not only free but just and that “voting with your wallet” is democratic, and the nostalgia for a collective identity based on consuming videogames (rather than making metagames). Taken together, this suite of beliefs both structure and are structured by the “right” way to play and could be called the ideology of the ideological avatar of play. Not unlike other forms of power, this standard metagame disavows its own existence. In the same way male privilege (as well as white privilege, heteronormativity, ableism, etc.) has historically been produced largely through its ability to circulate as an unstated default subject position, so too does the standard metagame draw its power from the fact that it is easy to take for granted and easy to forget that it is only one metagame among many. As argued at the beginning of this book, bringing the practice of play into alignment with the technological black box and commodified mass medium is the greatest trick the videogame industry ever pulled—a magic trick that makes the magic circle materialize.

When we began writing Metagaming we thought that a naive or orthodox belief in this kind of magic circle was a straw man—that no player could be so dogmatically utopian in their approach to videogames. In a frequently cited passage from Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga (1949, 10, 12) suggests that “all play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally . . . within which special rules obtain” and that “inside the circle of the game the laws and customs of ordinary life no longer count.”[11] The magic circle is a useful heuristic for differentiating leisure from labor, play from practice, and games from life, but it is also fairly easy to challenge. Countless game theorists have critiqued this popular concept by arguing that the magic circle is porous, that “we cannot say that games are magic circles, where the ordinary rules of life do not apply” and “there is a gap in the magic circle through which players carry subjectivity in and out of the game space. If the magic circle were really some kind of isolated antithesis to the world, it would never be possible to access it at all” (Consalvo 2009, 416; Bogost 2006, 135). As one of the authors responsible for popularizing Huizinga’s theory in Rules of Play (2003), Eric Zimmerman (2012) has gone so far as to suggest that the belief in the magic circle is one of the most pervasive “straw men” in game studies and that debunking the concept has become a “rite of passage” for many scholars even though no such “magic circle jerk” exists. Zimmerman (2012) writes,

I have made a harsh caricature of the magic circle jerk—as a silly super-structuralist that dogmatically believes in the truth of a hard-edged magic circle. Perhaps I have replaced the myth of the magic circle with a myth of my own—the impossibly idiotic magic circle jerk. But is it possible that the ghost of the jerk remains somewhere, as a tendency, as a predilection, as a potential that can still poison game studies?

Given the force of such critiques, we too wondered if there are players who actually believe in the magic circle, who unthinkingly abide by the logic of the standard metagame, who promote the anti-metagaming metagame as the “right” way to play, and who identify with the ideology of the ideological avatar of play. Is there a magic circle jerk or some kind of idiotic avatar of play arguing for videogames as a magic circle?

Metagaming begins by arguing against this phantom, claiming that all games are enclosed in a messy circle structured not by ideal rules but by the material practices and community histories of players who make metagames games using videogames as equipment. At first it wasn’t clear if this specter had any substance, but the response to Tropes vs. Women in Videogames revealed that the magic circle jerk did indeed appear to still be haunting videogames. Along with unwarranted outrage, systematic abuse, hate speech, and general misogyny, Sarkeesian’s harassers responded by circling their wagons in order to protect the standard metagame. Aside from ad hominem attacks (which number in the hundreds of thousands), recurring comments continue to be published ad nauseam across all manner of social media platforms that work to reinforce and police the border of the magic circle of videogames. Repeated over and over on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and 4chan, the magic circle jerk posted “who cares?” “they are just games,” “leave us alone,” “stop talking,” “fuck off,” “make your own game,” “she is not a gamer,” “she doesn’t care about games,” “she is only in it for the money,” “we are gamers,” “we love games.”[12] These disavowals and dismissals of Sarkeesian’s work are underwritten by the standard metagame, a magic circle that she was perceived not only as commenting upon or critiquing, but actively spoiling.

Although Tropes vs. Women in Video Games expressed common critiques of gender representation, Sarkeesian found herself in the unfortunate position of what Sara Ahmed (2010) calls the “feminist killjoy” or the figure who intervenes to critique “how happiness is used to justify social norms as social goods” (and in the process is blamed for the problem). As Ahmed (2010) argues, the perverse result of this displacement is that “situations of conflict, violence, and power are read as about the unhappiness of feminists, rather than being what feminists are unhappy about” (emphasis original). So, for her harassers, Sarkeesian represents the cynical and defeatist killjoy whose critique is coded as sexist because it discusses gender, coded as racist because it discusses diversity, coded as elitist because it discusses class, or coded as partisan because it discusses politics. But, as Ahmed (2010) observes, “To be unseated by the table of happiness might be to threaten not simply that table, but what gathers around it, what gathers on it,” and, for some, Sarkeesian’s cultural criticism seemed so powerful (and the standard metagame so fragile) that to bring conversations about gender to the table would bring the whole meal crashing to the ground.

In the case of Tropes vs. Women in Videogames, the feminist killjoy threatens the integrity of the magic circle and in doing so begins to resemble another maligned figure who refuses to accept the rules of the game: the spoilsport. In Homo Ludens, Huizinga (1949, 11) outlines,

The player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a “spoil-sport.” The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player, the cheat; for the latter pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle. It is curious to note how much more lenient society is to the cheat than to the spoil-sport. This is because the spoil-sport shatters the play-world itself.[13]

If hackers and modders, speedrunners and pro gamers, traders and farmers are sometimes considered cheats because they engage the machinations of videogames well beyond the standard ways of play, their tweaks and changes, exploits and expertise, gambling and grinding are nevertheless granted some leniency. These kinds of metagames do not stray too far from the central tenants of the ideological avatar of play. They don’t disrupt the social order of videogaming even as they test the boundaries of the rules, experiment with unintended mechanics, and expropriate the virtual economies of videogames. Forms of play that stray further from the standard are not as easily tolerated. When the metagame is no fun, it begins to expose the ideological avatar of play as just that, an avatar. By performing a critique of happiness that also punctures the magic circle, Sarkeesian is cast not only as a feminist killjoy but as a feminist spoilsport. And indeed, as Huizinga predicted over seventy years ago, no mercy is granted to the spoilsport.

He writes, almost prophetically,

The figure of the spoil-sport is most apparent in boys’ games. The little community does not enquire whether the spoil-sport is guilty of defection because he dares not enter into the game or because he is not allowed to. Rather [the community] does not recognize “not being allowed” and calls it “not daring.” (Huizinga 1949, 1)

Despite the fact that the magic circle has been widely dismissed as fiction, the shocking, strident, and ongoing vilification of Sarkeesian suggests that the desire for the magic circle wields far more power than many want to admit. Haunted by a toxic game that doesn’t know it’s a game, living with the background radiation of harassment, and surrounded by magic circle jerks and idiotic avatars of play, if the metagame is a way of life then it can also be a way to make life hell.

The Ends of Metagaming

If you can make a metagame, can you break a metagame? Do metagames have an endgame? How do metagames come to an end and what is the endgame of Metagaming? Difficult to control, impossible to predict, the metagame is always moving. Recalling Catherine Malabou’s radical notion of neural plasticity, metagames are plastic; they are explosive, but are also surprisingly resilient to change. Metagames have a way of surviving well beyond the sale of original software and outside the purview of the corporations that initiate them as well as the communities that develop them. Metagames can lie dormant for years only to spontaneously re-emerge into new contexts of play and spread swiftly at the most unexpected moments. They can impact the private play of single players as well as the massively multiplayer games of networked communities. Metagames are viral; they are infectious, and are often rendered invisible even as they structure how we play games. Like viruses, they are both dead and alive depending on their environment (and, like viruses they can kill you).[14] As such, the metagame thrives in the relationship between game and play, between involuntary operations and voluntary experience. Without relationality, in the absence of aboutness, withoutness, withinness, and aroundness, there can be no metagame. And the endgame of Metagaming is to at least imagine such an end.

At the ends of perspectival rendering, when embodied vision finally aligns with high-resolution screens or virtual reality goggles, there can be no game about games. When mimesis is no longer a myth and simulation becomes simulacrum, aboutness itself ends. While working at id Software before taking a position at Oculus, John Carmack (McCormick 2011) imagined perspectival rendering “converging at the limits of our biological systems.” With the release of head-mounted displays such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, Samsung Gear, Microsoft HoloLens, and even Google Cardboard (a smartphone-holding headset literally made out of cardboard) in 2015 and 2016, it is clear that the dream of immersive virtual reality is alive and well in the twenty-first century. As advertised on their 2012 Kickstarter campaign and on Oculus’s (2015) website, “Whether you’re stepping into your favorite game, watching an immersive VR movie, jumping to a destination on the other side of the world, or just spending time with friends in VR, you’ll feel like you’re really there.” If being “really there” merges realism with reality and conflates likeness with living, then the metagame of mimesis must end (and with it human subjectivity). If, as Richard Garfield argues, “a game without a metagame is like an idealized object in physics,” then the Platonic ideal of aboutnessless that VR headsets promise would ultimately be too bright for any cave dweller. Perhaps it’s best to continue playing in the shadows.

When a videogame (or VR headset) finally sees the light of day after months, years, or even decades of sneak peeks, crowdfunding campaigns, beta testing, theory crafting, and other forms of expectant metagaming, the game without a game must end. Without withoutness, the anticipatory fun and financial speculation played in, on, around, and through fundraising platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Greenlight, and even Patreon comes to an end. Following Oculus’s lead just a few months after the Rift was fully backed, on October 18, 2012, Cloud Imperium Games (CIG), a development company spearheaded by Chris Roberts, the creator of Wing Commander (1990) and Freelancer (2003), launched a Kickstarter for their massively multiplayer space simulator Star Citizen (forthcoming). The pitch included a series of “ship commercials” that were not simply advertisements for the game itself, but advertisements for in-game vehicles like the 2944 Aurora, the MISC Freelancer, the Anvil Aerospace Hornet, and the Origin 300 Series, to name a few. Mimicking the rhetoric and affect of various car commercials—from Ford and Chevy to BMW and Volkswagen—Star Citizen’s ads sold players on virtual vehicles with four-digit price tags (not to mention monthly insurance policies at premium rates so players could protect their investments before they even had access to the hangers and launchpads CIG promised).[15] Paying is a form of playing, and by 2016 Star Citizen had raised over 100 million dollars—leagues beyond the prize pools of Dota 2. Preproduction, prerelease, preordering, preloading, and pregaming: the videogame industry cultivates games of speculation (financial and otherwise) long before any product is packaged up and dropped onto store shelves. Star Citizen is not a work of science fiction because it takes place in the distant future and in a galaxy far, far away; it is a science fiction because it cultivates an anticipatory economy of affect and attention, allowing players to actively speculate on a future that does not yet exist.[16] When the game finally comes out, these games of withoutnessless will end. Until then, Star Citizen’s metagames will continue to orbit the black hole of withoutnessless, siphoning the money and attention of its starstruck players.

From withoutness to withinness, the end of the metagame veers away from the event horizon of a financial black hole toward the inner workings of mechanical black boxes and the entropic ends of the game within the game. Pixel by pixel, frame by frame, speedrunners inch closer and closer to the technical limitations of measured time. Once a videogame’s mechanics are reverse engineered and once an optimized route through a game is agreed upon, record-holding speedrunners from Narcissa Wright to Andrew Gardikis, Blubbler, Kosmicd12, and Darbian reduce videogames like Super Mario Bros. to mere numerals. First 4:57.693, then 4:57.627, 4:57.427, 4:57.260, 4:57.244, 4:57.194, until, for the first time, 4:56.878.[17] How low can the metagame go? When a human player has achieved the fastest possible real-time attack and once the complex inner workings of a videogame are reduced to one historical, embodied performance of play, then the game within the game ends. The metagame of withinness, however, guarantees that the mechanical, electrical, computational processes of technical media are black boxed, siloed away from conscious awareness and sensory perception. If any player could pierce the materiality of a given game, then that game would cease to offer possibility for play. Speedrunning ends when the game ceases to operate in terms of human agency and transitions from a game of skill supported by a community metagame of research and invention into a game of chance: a grind, a gamble, a random number generator. 4:56.878, then, represents the end of withinness, a withinnessless that without recourse to new techniques or alternate routes, would leave nothing left to do. And with nothing left to do, speedrunners migrate to other metagames, abandoning their microtemporal endgames and finish lines.

Beyond flickering frames and ticking timers, embodied habits and muscle memory, crowdfunding platforms and advertising campaigns, there are still games around these games that continue to elude their ends, games that take place across a wide range of media—from chain letters, scavenger hunts, geocaches, dead drops, public performances, and other forms of locative media to web rings, spectrographic imagery, datamoshed images, SSTV transmissions, and hundreds of cryptographic codes to disguise and disseminate their gameplay. Whether called pervasive games, immersive games, transmedia games, or alternate reality games (ARGs), these games around games “are not contained to any single medium, hardware system, or interface . . . [and] use the real world as both a platform and medium, even as they complicate the concept of realism in a digital era” (Hayles, Jagoda, LeMieux 220). Given their diverse materiality, diffuse proliferation, patchwork aesthetic, transmedia narratives, ephemeral temporality, and collective play, how could the aroundness of alternate reality games end?[18] In the strange riddles strewn about race tracks within Trials Evolution (2012), in the series of two-digit codes scribbled on desk notes within Surgeon Simulator (2013), in the alphabetic language found in the tetromino towns within Fez (2012), in the random radio chatter that suddenly appears throughout the test chambers within Portal (2007), in the conceptual possibilities that may never cohere into a Frog Fractions 2 (forthcoming),[19] and even in the gamified sales events that occasionally appear within the Steam store,[20] ARGs are increasingly enclosed within videogames. Whereas ARGs thrive in the atmosphere around games, when the air is sucked out from around them, they return to their original function as advertising in the vacuum of aroundnessless.

Aboutnessless, withoutnessless, withinnessless, and aroundnessless are the ends of metagaming—or at least signify the ways in which the relationship between videogames as technical media and the human experience of play mutates, morphs, modulates, and multiplies through metagaming. Conceptualizing this game of relationality, a meta-metagame that projects the possibility space of all metagames, is one of the purposes of this volume. And of course, Metagaming itself is also a metagame. This book is our attempt to both account for and play with the phenomenal experiences, material practices, community histories, economic markets, and technical ecologies of videogames—playing, competing, spectating, cheating, trading, making, and breaking videogames. Videogames are not only black-boxed technologies or consumable commodities or escapist fantasies or even allegories of control. Instead, they stand in for media generally because they highlight our assumptions about the larger technical circuits that operate in excess of (and often at the expense of) human consciousness. From text messaging to ATM machines to ultrafast algorithmic trading to predictive search algorithms, the goal of this volume is not only to consider the way we play videogames, but to become conscious of the ways in which we are constantly playing with (and being played by) technical media. And this book is no exception. Reading this text, writing in the margins, dog-earing pages, and bending the spine or annotating online, sharing across servers, printing out passages, or loading on e-readers are ways of metagaming Metagaming. It won’t always be a smooth, frictionless, or fun game to play, and cheating, trifling, and even spoiling these pages is expected, but the odds are, whether you want to or not, you are already playing a metagame.

How do you stop Metagaming? We’ll start: □.

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